Cast grievances, on-set tensions, health problems… There’s a lot about The Waltons that its creators probably wouldn’t want you to know. Yes, while the much-loved TV show was achingly charming and wholesome, behind the scenes it was another matter entirely. Read on to find out more…
40. CBS predicted that the show would bomb
If you remember The Waltons, you may already be humming the theme music. But can you believe that CBS actually expected the series to tank? That’s right: apparently the network had little faith that a “rural” show could survive against such ’70s TV stalwarts as The Flip Wilson Show and The Mod Squad. However, not only did The Waltons kick both shows’ butts in the ratings, but it also set a trend for homespun classics that Little House on the Prairie followed.
39. The show was made to keep Congress happy
Yup, the U.S. Congress reportedly wasn’t pleased with TV programming at the turn of the ’70s. That’s presumably because it wasn’t wholesome enough, and so The Waltons was created in response to the complaint. In 2012 Cami Cotler, who played youngest Walton Elizabeth, told the Los Angeles Times, “The rumor was that [CBS] put it against Flip Wilson and The Mod Squad because they didn’t think it would survive. They thought, ‘We can just tell Congress [that] America doesn’t want to see this.’” How wrong the bosses were.
38. The Waltons began life as a movie
Yes indeed, folks. The classic feel-good drama was adapted from a film, released in 1971, called The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. While John Walton Sr., Olivia and Grandpa are all played by different actors, all the Walton kids from the series star in the made-for-television movie – which, as the name suggests, sees the family getting set for Christmas. But with John Walton working in another state, anxiety grows over whether he will make it back in time for the holidays. Not exactly a high-stakes scenario, but it worked!
37. The show was filmed in Hollywood
Sorry to shatter the illusion, but Walton’s Mountain doesn’t actually exist. In fact, the show’s rural scenes weren’t even filmed in Virginia but on a slope of the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles. And the Waltons’ house? That was actually located in what’s known as the “jungle” area of the Warner Bros. Studios lot in Burbank, California. Mind blown.
36. The Waltons was based on a real family
As it turns out, The Waltons was based, in part, on reality. See, the show’s creator, a man by the name of Earl Hamner Jr., grew up with seven siblings. It’s said that John-Boy, Mary Ellen, Jason, Ben, Erin, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth Walton were each based on a member of Hamner’s family. A melding of the writer’s four grandparents provided the inspiration for the Walton grandparents Zeb and Esther, it seems.
35. John and Olivia Walton briefly dated in real life
You know how when an on-screen couple have an amazing chemistry together, you secretly wish that they were an item in real life? Well, that was nearly the case for devoted on-screen married couple John and Olivia Walton. The actors, otherwise known as Ralph Waite and Michael Learned, tried dating in real life. But sadly, it didn’t work out. “We were both single,” Learned told Closer Weekly in 2017. “So I drove out to Malibu, but we just looked at each other and said, ‘Nah, I don’t think so.”
34. The Waltons’ house appeared in Gilmore Girls
After being dismantled when the show ended in 1981, the Waltons’ house enjoyed a second life in Gilmore Girls. That’s right. Although it had to be reconstructed and was a little changed from the original, the home’s exterior reappeared as the Dragonfly Inn, in the popular television drama. If you look closely, you’ll spot it in the episode where Lorelai and Sookie buy and fix up the old building.
33. Henry Fonda almost played John Walton
He charmed fans all over the world with his portrayal as loveable patriarch John Walton. But Waite wasn’t first choice for the part. In fact, CBS originally wanted a big star on board, so it approached Hollywood legend Henry Fonda for the role. But when Fonda was shown the pilot, he reportedly told executive producer Lee Rich, “What do you want me for? The kid is the star! The whole family is the star! You don’t need me.”
32. Jason and Ben Walton appear most
It might surprise you to learn that Jason and Ben are the only members of the Walton family not to miss a single episode. The show ran for an impressive nine seasons, with actors Jon Walmsley and Eric Scott – who played Jason and Ben respectively – both featuring in a whopping 221 episodes. Wowzers!
31. The opening credits changed
Fans of the show will remember that the opening credits of The Waltons didn’t stay the same throughout. And in fact it’s only in the first season that we see live-action sequences of the family. You might recall that in these credits, we see the family excitedly gather around John Walton as he brings home a new radio. Later seasons though, featured only sepia-tinted still shots of the cast in the opening credits.
30. The series was based on a Henry Fonda movie
Did you know that The Waltons creator Hamner also wrote a novel – based on his own life – called Spencer’s Mountain? And that the TV series was inspired by the 1963 movie adaptation starring, yes, Henry Fonda? Yes sir. Which also explains why CBS executives wanted the latter-named star to take the role of John Walton in the TV show. We think it’s fair to say that Waite did an excellent job of playing the patriarch, though.
29. Grandpa Walton was once played by a different actor
Yes, in the Waltons movie pilot The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, which birthed the TV series, Grandpa “Zeb” Walton was played by Edgar Bergen. Will Geer then took over the role, memorably embodying it for six seasons until he sadly passed away in 1978. In a nice touch and tribute to Bergen, the first-ever episode saw the family surround the radio listening to the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show.
28. Their accents changed
This is something that probably only superfans of The Waltons will have picked up on… But did y’all – there’s a clue – ever notice how the accents of the main characters changed? Yep siree – there’s another clue – Olivia, John-Boy and Jason Walton in particular had distinctly southern twangs at the start of the series, which just kind of disappeared. Well, hot diggity!
27. Olivia Walton voted best TV mom
Raising seven children is no easy feat, so it’s hardly surprising that Olivia Walton – a.k.a. Learned – consistently tops lists of the greatest TV moms of all time. Seems fans have a lot of love for the no-nonsense but loving matriarch. She regularly ties in first place on the “best TV mom” list with fellow country momma Caroline Ingalls, otherwise known as Karen Grassle, from rival rural drama, Little House on the Prairie.
26. John Walton and John-Boy had met before
The Waltons wasn’t Waite (John Sr.) and Richard Thomas’ (John-Boy) debut as a father/son duo. The co-stars appeared together a few years before their small-screen pairing, in the 1969 coming-of-age flick Last Summer. Thomas plays Peter, one of the leading roles in this dark and compelling drama. Meanwhile, poor old Waite isn’t even credited as Peter’s father.
25. John-Boy broke the mould
As gentle and wholesome as it might be, The Waltons was revolutionary in its own way. Because before the early ’70s when the series first aired, no one had seen a male character who was sensitive like John-Boy take the lead in an American TV show. Thomas’s protagonist, who is also the series narrator, described John-Boy as “not typical” when interviewed by the Television Academy Foundation. “This was a guy on a television series who was quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins to his mother,” said the actor.
24. The Waltons had so many pets!
You might remember dear old Blue the mule, but can you remember all of the Walton animals? In total, there were seven – yes seven! – pets belonging to the family, that were featured in the series. There was of course Wreckless the dog too; Calico the cat; Chance the cow; Myrtle the cow; Rover the peacock and Lance the deer. We’re loving those names!
23. Name trivia
In the case of some of the Waltons characters, their first names are hardly mentioned. “Grandma” Walton for example, is rarely referred to by her real name of Esther. In turn Esther sometimes addresses “Grandpa” Walton as “Zeb,” but did you know that his full name is Zebulon Tyler Walton? Similarly, the first name of local law enforcer, Sheriff Ep Bridges, is almost never mentioned in the show. It’s Marmaduke, by the way.
22.The cast weren’t treated well
We’re accustomed to hearing about celebrities being given the pampering treatment. But apparently, this wasn’t the case for the The Waltons stars. Scott revealed to Closer Weekly in 2017 that he felt “intense pressure” to do everything perfectly on set. But that the cast were rarely thanked for their efforts. “It was disappointing that no one even called to say, ‘By the way, thank you,’” Scott told Closer Weekly. He added, “We were loved by the public, but we never felt the studio appreciated us.”
21. John Walton one of the greatest ever TV dads
Much like his on-screen wife Olivia, John Walton ranks highly on lists of the best-ever TV parents. In fact, he made third place on TV Guide magazine’s “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” list. And just as Caroline Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie has competed with Olivia Walton for “best TV mom”, her husband Charles Ingalls is just below John Walton on the greatest dads list. Meanwhile, it was Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright who took the place above John Sr.
20. What really happened to Reverend Fordwick?
Serious fans of The Waltons will remember that Reverend Fordwick – played by John Ritter – was written out of the show, with the explanation that he joined the U.S. army in World War Two, after the Pearl Harbor invasion. In fact, Ritter left The Waltons after being offered his starring role in the popular sitcom Three’s Company. He later admitted, according to IMDb, that his only regret in taking the part was quitting The Waltons. Aw.
19. Tom Bower played two different characters
Mary Ellen’s husband might have looked familiar when he first appeared on the show. That’s because Dr. Curtis – “Curt” – Willard, played by Tom Bower, had made his debut a season earlier. Only he was playing a different character. Yes, Bower had previously portrayed a pilot named Rex Barker in the 1975 episode, “The Wing-Walker.” Curt was of course Mary Ellen’s first husband; she later went on to marry Arlington Westcott Jones, or “Jonesy.”
18. John-Boy’s university was based on a real place
The sensitive, creative one, John-Boy leaves the Walton family home aged 18 to study writing. His place of education is fictional Boatwright University in Virginia. But here’s the fun fact: Boatwright is actually based on the real University of Richmond. The latter is where Waltons creator Hamner studied in his youth. An even more fun fact: Richmond University’s library is named Boatwright Memorial Library.
17. Olivia Walton was nearly played by a different actress
In the pilot movie that birthed The Waltons, the part of Olivia Walton wasn’t played by Learned. In fact, Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal played the matriarch in The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. But due to her health problems at the time, producers were reluctant to cast the star as Olivia in the series. This was something that the show’s creator, Hamner, later admitted in a 1999 chat with the Archive of American Television.
16.Will Geer’s death was written into the show
Will Geer will always be remembered as affable Grandpa Walton; a role he won an Emmy for in 1975. Geer’s real-life passing from respiratory failure at the age of 76 left a hole in the show. Poignantly, his last appearance – at the end of season six – saw him back again with his on-screen wife Esther, after actress Ellen Corby’s absence due to illness. So the writers decided to write Grandpa’s death into the program, with the characters mourning him at the start of the seventh season.
15. “John-Boy” returned after quitting the show
In the role of the undisputed star of the series, John-Boy, Thomas appeared in a whopping 122 episodes before leaving the show in 1977. See, his contract was only for the opening five seasons and not for the duration of the program’s run. But it wouldn’t be Thomas’ final appearance in The Waltons, as the actor returned for three feature-length special episodes in the 1990s. What made him decide to quit the series? Ah, we’ll get to that…
14. Mary Ellen’s first husband didn’t die after all
Shocker! After poor Mary Ellen was led to believe that her husband Dr. Curtis – “Curt” – Willard had been killed during the Pearl Harbor attack in World War Two, it was later revealed that Curt wasn’t dead after all. In fact he had started a new life in a different state, after sustaining such terrible injuries during the war that he believed his wife would no longer love him. But Mary Ellen’s story ends happily, as she goes on to marry Arlington Westcott Jones/“Jonesy”, with whom she has two children, Clay and Katie.
13. Ralph Waite was a licensed minister
Good lord! Yes, despite playing the church-dodging John Walton on TV, Waite was actually a very religious man. Before he found acting, Waite studied for a master’s degree at Yale University’s Divinity School and went on to become an ordained Presbyterian minister. He even once worked as religious editor at the Harper & Row publishing house in New York. According to IMDb, the actor used his ministerial knowledge to help out co-star Ritter with his part as Reverend Fordwick in The Waltons.
12. Richard Thomas left to become a movie star
After five years and 122 episodes playing the part of John-Boy, Thomas left The Waltons in 1977. His role was taken over by Robert Wightman, but fans of the actor were still treated to appearances by Thomas as John-Boy in the three Waltons movies that followed his departure. According to IMDb, Thomas wanted to pursue other acting interests, especially movies. He went on to play Shad in the Star Wars-style Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). He also enjoyed critical success in the one-man stage show, Citizen Tom Paine, in 1987.
11. The Walton kids’ ages get muddled
It can’t have been easy for the scriptwriters, keeping track of everybody’s ages on a long-running show such as The Waltons. So inevitably, there are a few slipups. For example, Olivia Walton mentions that John-Boy was born when her husband was away fighting in World War One, during the spring of 1917. But earlier in the series, John-Boy’s birthdate is given as 1916. And if Erin, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth’s birthdays are correct, then that would mean that they graduated from high school at the ages of 15, 21 and 20 respectively. Say what?
10. The cast were underpaid
You’d think that starring in a hugely successful TV show such as The Waltons would bring in the big bucks, right? Wrong. Scott told Closer Weekly, “We did not get rich from that show.” And proving just how fickle the fame game is, Scott struggled to find more acting work after the series came to an end. So he got a job as a messenger. Where was one of his first deliveries? Lorimar Productions, the company that produced The Waltons.
9. Reverend Matthew saved Erin Walton in real life
Mary Elizabeth McDonough, a.k.a. Erin Walton, once admitted on the The Oprah Winfrey Show that being known as “the pretty one” on The Waltons made her feel obliged to look perfect. In an obsessive bid to be thin, she developed an eating disorder and her health quickly declined. Ritter noticed and stepped in to help. “He said, ‘No, no, I want you to start doing a journal,’” McDonough told Oprah. “And that night I started journaling, and it saved my life.”
8. Robert Wightman wasn’t mentioned in the credits
After Thomas’s departure at the end of season five, his character, John-Boy Walton, isn’t seen again for a while. Thomas made two more guest appearances before John-Boy returned in season eight, this time with Wightman in the role. Interestingly though, while Thomas’ name had always appeared at the top of the opening credits, poor Wightman doesn’t get a mention. Instead, he is relegated to “Also Starring” status in the closing credits. Ouch.
7. Ralph Waite was allegedly fired
By its ninth and final series, The Waltons was losing some of its magic. With many of the original cast already gone, it was Waite’s time to leave, after episode eight. The story being that his character, John Sr., went to be with his sick wife Olivia, who was in a sanatorium. But according to IMDb, Waite was written out of the show because of “budgetary issues.” Apparently, the cost of the series had grown as Waite got older, and CBS only agreed to a ninth season on the condition that budget cuts be made. Ageing Waite’s salary was one of those cuts.
6. Grandpa Walton and actor Will Geer died at the same age
We’ve already mentioned that the character of Grandpa Walton was written out of the show after actor Geer passed away in real life. Geer succumbed to respiratory failure, shortly after filming on the sixth season wrapped. The next season began with the other characters mourning the loss of Grandpa. We later see his tombstone, with the lifespan of 1865-1941 on it. That would’ve made him 76, the same age as Geer when he died.
5. Michael Learned left because the show changed too much
Learned admitted that a big part of the reason she quit the show was because she didn’t like how it was changing. Learned left her regular role – returning briefly and in four of the reunion movies – at exactly the same time that the “new” John-Boy – a.k.a. Wightman – joined the series. And it was no coincidence. In 2017 the actress told Fox News, “Frankly, when John-Boy came back with a new face and a new voice, it was like something happened. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
4. Ralph Waite wanted to be a politician
Yes, life after The Waltons saw Waite give politics a try. He ran three times as a Democrat for Congress in California, but was unsuccessful. He also ran in the 1998 special election in Palm Springs, for the chair left by the late Sonny Bono. But he was twice defeated by Sonny’s widow, Mary. Waite even introduced former California Governor Jerry Brown before his speech at the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination.
3. Look closely in the last episode
The last episode of The Waltons – not including the reunion movies – aired in 1981 and was called “The Revel”. It saw John-Boy return to the family roost after an unsuccessful trip to New York to get his third book published. In the final scene of the episode, the Waltons and Godseys gather at the home of the Baldwin sisters for a party. Eagle-eyed viewers might spot a few extra guests at the end… They are long-standing Waltons’ cast and crew members, plus the show’s creator Hamner.
2. Grandma Walton’s illness reflected her real-life health issues
Fans of the show might remember that Esther, or Grandma Walton, was notably absent from the sixth season. And that when she returned, she had very few lines to speak. In an example of art imitating life – it was written into the show that Grandma had suffered a stroke, which actress Corby actually did in real life. In a sad irony, Corby’s first episode after her return was Grandpa actor Geer’s last before he died.
1. The “goodnight” thing came from Earl Hamner’s childhood
Ask anyone what they remember most about The Waltons and they’ll probably tell you it’s the famous “goodnight” sequence to finish up. This is when we see an exterior shot of the Walton house, with the lights turning off one by one as we hear the family bid each other goodnight. Again, this was a tradition lifted from the real-life experience of the show’s creator Hamner, whose family actually used to do this. All together now, “Goodnight John-Boy; goodnight Mary Ellen…”